Rory McNab gives his view on whether Wenger’s current crop is at all comparable to 2004’s greats.
“McNab! I’ve got another assignment for you!” We all have someone like this in our lives. A certain demanding so and so who endeavours to make our struggles on this earth just that little bit harder. Mine is my editor Neil and, if you’ll allow me for a moment to get bloody real here, he’s driving me to the end of my tether with his insatiable lust for web content. “I want two thousand words on my desk for next Monday!” I see my plans for a relaxing weekend of topiary and eating raw beef crumble before me. “Oh sure,” I think to myself, “I’ll have two thousand words on your desk for you! How about ‘Wanker!’ carved into your desk two thousand times!? Or ‘Back off you shit!’ scrawled five hundred times, or ‘Go fuck yourself you demanding clitoris!’ etched 333.33-times recurring, into your contemptible mahogany monolith!?” I managed to internalise most of this, the only outward signs of my dissatisfaction; a gentle twitching of my right eye and my remaining in the foetal position for some twenty minutes on the floor of his office. “I want the piece to be a comparison between Arsenal’s team this season and the Invincibles and how not even one of this year’s players would make it onto the Invincibles team.”
(The above is a somewhat dramatised account of an exchange which may or may not have actually taken place over Facebook Messenger and may or may not have been quite amicable.)
The simple fact of the matter is that his statement is wrong. Thierry Henry has said in interviews that during his whole time at Arsenal there was never a greater sense of team spirit than during the 2003/04 season of the Invincibles. To compare the two teams, it’s patently undeniable that the Invincibles possessed a degree of cohesion and unity which at present seems beyond the current Arsenal crop. Attempting to slot the likes of Coquelin, Ramsey or any player into the Invincibles team would no doubt disrupt that unique dynamic, not least because the players would undoubtedly be deeply unnerved to see a man from the future come and try to usurp one of their own. As such it is somewhat redundant positing which current Arsenal players would best fit into the Invincibles team.
My ideal scenario would be to create a sort of hybrid of the players of both teams, splicing their body parts together to create a race of footballing super-beings. Grafting the legs of Hector Bellerin onto Invincible right-back Lauren to grant him extra speed for example, or implanting Santi Cazorla’s brain into Gilberto Silva’s head to enable the latter to read and control the game with the skill of Cazorla. The results would be both unstoppable and aesthetically deplorable. I pitched the idea for creating this herd of short-clad demi-gods to my editor Neil. He explained to me that, apart from it being a near logistical impossibility, it would constitute a flagrant breach of something he called ‘ethics’. A quick google search of this term, and a tactful intervention by a psychiatrist later, and I began to see the error of my ways.
The only way to do this I think is to view a player from each generation for each position in isolation, regardless of their ability to form a cohesive team- so in essence I’m taking Martin O’Neill’s approach to team-selection, hey-oh! For the purposes of this gladiatorial ho-down of a thought experiment I shall put forward two teams which shall vie for positions in a regular 4-4-2 system, which would be more akin to the Invincibles standard formation. Since I think we can all agree that this is at best a fatuous thought experiment I’ve decided that there is only one battleground ‘pon which ‘tis fitting for these colossi to do battle. Only one space which provides a set of trials both unique and challenging enough to truly test this inter-generational maelstrom and separate the men from the now slightly older men in order to assemble a legion of sphere kicking titans; A Church Fete.
Yes I shall pit players against each other in a series of church fete style events to determine my ultimate Arsenal amalgam of players old and new. So without further ado:
Contenders: Jens Lehmann vs. Petr Cech.
Church Fete Event: Go-Kart Derby.
Both men do themselves, and the noble art of racing in tiny homemade wooden carts, proud. They zoom around the course- a series of cones set down on a disused bit of tarmac behind the church- overtaking one another, vying for the best line. They finish in a dead heat. A tie. Their quality is inseparable. Though an official later disqualifies Lehmann for not wearing appropriate head safety gear. (Ed. Lehmann was a goalkeeper who didn’t lose a league game in his first year in England)
Winner: Petr Cech. (Ed. Wrong)
Contenders: Ashley Cole vs. Nacho Monreal.
Church Fete Event: Face-Painting.
The make-up artist, Jeannette the wife of a local butcher, does a stellar job on Ashley Cole. His entire face is utterly transformed into the image of a snarling lion. His whole demeanour seems to morph into that of a wild animal of the Savanah. Lithe. Athletic. Possessing a deadly edge. His fearsome eyes and bared teeth strike fear into all who see him. When Nacho Monreal arrives Jeanette has accidentally dropped her pack of face pastels into a puddle. She tries to salvage what she can and bravely rubs the soggy sticks against his distraught Spanish countenance. But alas it is in vein. Monreal is forced to borrow some of Jeanette’s make-up wipes and run, in tears, to a bathroom. As he scrubs the last of the sloppy, coloured mess from his cheeks he gazes at himself in the mirror, accepting that he will always look like a somewhat competent drawing of Peter Crouch. But never anything more.
Winner: Ashley Cole.
Position: Central Defence.
Contenders: Sol Campbell & Kolo Touré vs. Laurent Koscielny & Gabriel.
Church Fete Event: Three-Legged Race.
Sol Campbell & Kolo Touré stand at the starting line, their legs neatly cable-tied together. They have a sense of harmony, of unity. They exude an aura of singe-mindedness. They stare at the finish line, some distance ahead, and visualise themselves crossing it, together. Laurent Koscielny arrives; his brow furrowed, his gaze steely. He is ready to compete, as is Gabriel. Though unfortunately due to Gabriel’s still poor grasp of English, he has fundamentally misunderstood the concept of a three-legged race and has accidentally shackled himself to a bike-rack. Their breakdown in communication means Gabriel is unable to compete and victory is awarded to Sol Campbell and Kolo Touré while a pair of scissors are sourced to free the distressed Brazilian.
Winner: Sol Campbell & Kolo Touré.
Contenders: Lauren vs. Hector Bellerin.
Church Fete Event: Guessing the Weight of a Tortoise.
Alan, the tortoise, is led out on a lead in front of the two poised sportsmen. They stare at Alan’s plump round shell and his thin flimsy legs, quickly drinking in every minute detail. Calculating. “How heavy is a shell?” “Has Alan defecated recently?” “If so do tortoises defecate much?” “Why am I thinking about Alan defecating?” All these thoughts and more rush through their heads. Lauren could have made the first move. But he chooses not to. He’ll react instead, judging the course of his own decisions from his opponent’s actions. Bellerin, eager to impress, rushes in. “Seven kilogrammes!” Lauren wryly smiles. “Eight kilogrammes.” The judges exchange glances. At last count Alan weighed eight and a half kilogrammes. Lauren punches the air and finds himself the proud new owner both of Alan the tortoise and a place on this hypothetical team.
Position: Central Midfield.
Contenders: Patrick Vieira & Gilberto Silva vs. Francis Coquelin & Santi Cazorla.
Church Fete Event: Petting Zoo.
The boys are all initially having a lovely day out in the petting zoo. Santi Cazorla lovingly cradles a goose whilst Gilberto Silva firmly but affectionately rubs his thick Brazilian hands across the quivering belly of a ewe. Everything is going terrifically until Francis Coquelin suddenly panics and, in a rash moment of madness, slide tackles a piglet. Cazorla and Coquelin are rightfully removed from the petting zoo and Vieira and Gilberto bury the body of the lifeless piglet with as much grace and dignity as the unfortunate situation allows them to muster.
Winner: Patrick Vieira & Gilberto Silva.
Position: Right Wing.
Contenders: Fredrik Ljungberg vs. Alexis Sanchez.
Church Fete Event: Treasure Hunt.
The two men are tasked with collecting as many eggs, hidden around the church grounds, as possible. Alexis Sanchez, to the surprise of no one, finishes in record time. Fredrik Ljungberg is understandably upset and sportingly congratulates Sanchez before posing for a series of photographs for a local newspaper. He insists on doing the shoot in his underwear. Sanchez humbly collects his prize- a refurbished leaf-blower- without much ceremony, and pledges to share it with his family back in Chile.
Winner: Alexis Sanchez.
Position: Left Wing.
Contenders: Robert Pires vs. Aaron Ramsey.
Church Fete Event: Apple-Bobbing.
Aaron Ramsey strides confidently up to the water-filled recycling bin perched on a stool. He stares at its surface, brimming with plump red apples. He takes a deep breath and plunges; thwacking his head against the rim of the bin and knocking himself unconscious. He is immediately ruled out of action for three months. The small assembled crowd look on in dismay and lament how it seems only a couple of seasons ago he would have bobbed expertly. Robert Pires approaches and begins to calmly pull out apple after apple until there are none remaining. He then with one hand slicks back his dripping locks and proceeds to have full penetrative sex with the consenting, beautiful stall attendant much to the horror of those looking on, and the St. John’s Ambulance crew tending to the concussed Ramsey.
Winner: Robert Pires.
Contenders: Dennis Bergkamp vs. Mesut Ozil.
Church Fete Event: Paper Plane Making Contest.
The two men, greats of their field, take their sheets of paper and retreat to their workshops –small desks borrowed from a local primary school. Ozil folds and slicks, measures and folds and folds and perfects his sheet until he is staring at an almost completed plane. A work of beauty. He pauses and gazes over at Bergkamp. He sees the Dutchman staring at his own sheet with tears trickling down his cheeks. “What is wrong Dennis?” Ozil asks tenderly. “It is the planes. I am afraid of flying. I cannot do it.” Bergkamp replies, shamefully averting his eyes; embarrassed. Ozil makes a decision. He places his nearly finished plane down on his tiny table and approaches the crying Dutchman. “I will help you Dennis.” Ozil assists Bergkamp in making his plane and tries to help him get to grips with his fear of flying. They eventually hold in their hands a magnificent paper plane. Bergkamp’s face is still slick with tears. But he is smiling. They are tears of joy. “Thank you Mesut.” And Bergkamp throws the plane and it flies and flies. And flies.
Winner: Dennis Bergkamp.
Position: Centre Forward.
Contenders: Thierry Henry vs. Theo Walcott.
Church Fete Event: Snail-Racing.
Theo Walcott decides against entering his snail in the race as a sign of his awed respect for his opponent. Thierry Henry eats both snails in celebration.
Winner: Thierry Henry.
So there you have it. In all, I think we can agree that it would have been far simpler for me to simply have said that Petr Cech and Alexis Sanchez are the only two players who would’ve made the Invincibles team. Blame Neil, my editor, and his coveting of two thousand words.